A long way from Hazzard County
Tom Wopat, who's starring in Chicago at Ruth Eckerd Hall, wants you to know that he's more than an '80s TV show star.
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published March 1, 2005
Tom Wopat was running late.
"Can I call you back in a few hours?" he asked, without a trace of his Luke Duke drawl.
We were supposed to be talking about his starring role in Chicago. He's coming to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall tonight to play Billy Flynn in the Bob Fosse musical.
But the 53-year-old actor had just received a call from his agent. From his home in northern New Jersey, Wopat said he had to race into New York.
He had to do an audition. For a Budweiser commercial.
"Actually," he explained, "it's for a voiceover for a Budweiser commercial."
What was that he said? Tom Wopat. The hunky, dark-haired Luke Duke on TV's Dukes of Hazzard. Guitar picker. Country singer. The Broadway actor who was nominated for a Tony Award for his leading role in Annie Get Your Gun.
Tom Wopat had to audition? For a beer ad? For a voiceover on a beer ad?
"The money is phenomenal," Wopat said. "I got my first account three months ago, for a Subaru commercial. I also do books on tape."
* * *
His voice has softened and deepened in the decades since he was a Duke. Few folks stop him on the street anymore, asking about Boss Hogg or Daisy Duke. He doesn't wear the black cowboy hat or tight jeans. He buttons his shirt. He's not sure he could still leap through the window of a '69 Dodge Charger. And he's still bitter that Bo always got to drive.
"It's only 'cause I was doing all the thinkin'," he said, pulling the Georgia accent out of his back pocket like a rusty can of Skoal.
From 1979-85, Wopat was the smart cousin on one of prime time's biggest hits. His good ol' boy character always outfoxed the sheriff. Wopat's smile was plastered on posters and magazines. His mug hung in hundreds of high school girls' lockers.
On his Web site, now, he has a beard. It's frosted gray. Twenty years have slid by since he jumped into the General Lee.
But there's still a Tom Wopat as Luke Duke chat room on Yahoo. Cracker Barrel is selling Dukes of Hazzard T-shirts. In January, the complete first and second seasons of The Dukes of Hazzard were released on DVD. Now a whole new generation will be squealing "Yee-haaaw!" and ramming barricades with the boys. "I had a blast doing Luke. But that was just one of the gigs I did. And it was a long time ago," Wopat said.
"I've kept pretty busy since then. I just released a new jazz record."
Then he had to hang up. He promised to call back after his Budweiser audition.
* * *
Wopat grew up on a dairy farm in Lodi, Wis. Nothing Southern about him.
He started singing in musicals as a teenager, dropped out of college to front a rock group. In the late '70s, he moved to New York and made his stage debut. He always thought of himself as a better singer than actor.
When CBS signed him for a "rustic comic adventure," he had never done television. He had no clue he would become an icon. He hated Los Angeles.
After Luke's long run, Wopat showed up on TV now and then. He was on programs everyone has forgotten: a divorced dad on 1988's Blue Skies, a veterinarian on A Peaceable Kingdom. He won the role of one of Cybill Shepherd's ex-husbands on her 1995 show.
Wopat also fronted a country band for 15 years, and lived part-time in Nashville. He wrote a few songs. He recorded five albums.
In 1998, he returned to his first passion: musical theater. He starred on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun.
He has been married twice. He's single now. He has five children, ages 9 to 20. He lives in a log cabin on a lake in northern New Jersey, where he grows fat tomatoes and steams them into chili. He has a second home in Taos, N.M. Those voiceovers must pay well.
He just finished a six-week tour with a jazz ensemble, crooning standards from his new album, Dissertation on the State of Bliss. He played cabarets with 150 people, theaters with 2,500 seats. Soon, he'll start rehearsals for his first role in a nonmusical Broadway show, a play with Alan Alda.
He has "no burning desire" to go back to television.
For the past year, Wopat has been touring the country as Billy Flynn in Chicago (the part Richard Gere played in the movie). He has done 200 performances, at least. Spent a couple of nights to a week in dozens of cities.
He'll be in Clearwater for three shows.
"I want to get a tan," he said when he called back. He hadn't heard whether he'll be the new voice for the king of beers.
-- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or firstname.lastname@example.org
At a glance
Chicago, 8 p.m. Tue., 2 and 8 p.m. Wed. Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. $37-$65 (727) 791-7400.
[Last modified February 28, 2005, 16:11:03]
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